Controlling Company Culture

Jason Blumer

I’ve been thinking about company culture a lot lately. The Thrivecast (the podcast from Thriveal) was on culture, and Greg Kyte (my co-host) and I did some study around the subject.

Furthermore, I got into a discussion on culture in our private Thriveal community when I linked up an article in the community entitled ‘Don’t F#@! up the Culture.’ The article was written by the CEO of Airbnb, Brian Chesky, and he was telling his team what his investor, Peter Thiel, told him when Chesky asked Thiel, “What is the single most important piece of advice you can give me?” I believe it is a huge statement for Peter Thiel to respond to that question with an answer focused on controlling culture. He said, “don’t f#@! up the culture.” Since Peter Thiel was the CEO of PayPal, I’m going to listen to his thoughts on building company culture. I dug into Peter Thiel’s thoughts on culture a little more, and found the article entitled ‘Peter Thiel’s 3 Rules for Starting a Business‘ by Jessica Stillman of Inc. magazine. The article was written about a Stanford class Peter Thiel taught, and the summary of that class from the notes of one of the students. Let me point out that the first (of three) things Thiel told the students they need to do when starting a business is to get the culture right. The class notes go on to summarize a 2 x 2 matrix that Thiel discussed. I like matrices, so I built the matrix visually from the article and the notes of the student:

From the martix above you can see that Thiel places culture creation in the realm of two main areas: (1) the types of people you hire, and (2) the types of rule structures you create in your company. Different structures work for different companies, and he points out that it is important to get this right at the very beginning of starting your company.

As Thiel’s law goes, A startup messed up at its foundation cannot be fixed. I’ll let you study the matrix above, but let me point out that Thiel’s preference is to hire high trust people in a company with high alignment of rules (that is, they are well set and intentional).   Now to my thoughts on controlling company culture. I titled this post using the word ‘control’ on purpose, because I do believe it is the job of the CEO to control and set the culture of a company. I stated this in our private Thriveal community, and I’m not sure everyone agreed with me. In my 11 years of running my company, hiring and firing almost 20 times, I’ve seen a few distinct cultures created and controlled in my company. The earlier forms of culture in my company were more accidental, and the later ones were controlled a bit more. One thing that was mentioned in our recent community discussions on culture is that the people you hire have influence over your culture, so how can you control your culture if the people you hire will change it. Good thoughts, and the fact that people you hire will influence your culture is definitely true! But I don’t believe it’s either/or. That is, I don’t believe you can EITHER control culture, OR let the employees influence culture. I believe both happen.  

I view company culture as a three part Venn diagram. Figure 1 above shows the Company Culture Circles. Let me explain what the letters mean, and why I think controlling company culture is a three-part work.

A – Initiate – this is where the CEO or leader of the company must initiate the company culture, and this is the job of the leader. You can’t delegate this, just like you can’t delegate the vision of the company to someone else. The leader of the company must be brave to state what the culture will be, what is important to the company, and how we want to portray our brand to the world.

B – Influence – the great leader will fully understand that each and every employee will influence the culture in some way. It will happen and this is not something you can help. It is important to build hiring practices that allow you to find the people that will fit within your company culture, and will portray your brand in the way you expect. It’s often hard to fight the influence of an employee – instead, I believe we should embrace and celebrate their influence!

C – Engage – there are times when a leader has to step in, engage the culture and redirect it to where it must go to continue the promise of the brand to the world. The culture must constantly be engaged to remain true to the owner’s original idea of what the company culture is to be. I’ve had employees that were obviously influencing the culture of my company in ways that were not aligned with what I was trying to build. I stepped in and removed those employees from our company. Company culture must be managed through engagement.

D – Controlled – I guess the goal of the company culture circles is to eventually become ‘controlled.’ That is, we are looking for design in our culture with no accidents. I think all three aspects above are required to have a Controlled Company Culture. Here, controlled means purposeful as opposed to accidental. Don’t read controlled as heavy handed, or micro managed.

Let me make one more point – in all aspects of controlling company culture, I see the CEO or leader of the company as the main one doing this great work. Even in the influence phase of company culture where the employee does the main work, the CEO still has the responsibility to hire in a way that will ensure culture is purposeful. And there are times when the CEO must remove influences on culture that are not part of the original intent of the owner. This engagement is still the hand of the CEO building with intention. The invisible hand of the CEO is running through every aspect of controlling company culture. To delegate the building of company culture to others is to abdicate your role as CEO. Don’t do it! Honestly, I’m new to thinking about controlling company culture. I would love some challenge and insights as to what I’ve missed, and how I can improve culture in my own company.

¹As adapted from Inc. article, ‘Peter Thiel’s 3 Rules for Starting a Business‘ by Jessica Stillman and class notes on Peter Thiel’s Stanford Class, CS183 – Startup by Blake Masters  

Jason is the Founder of Thriveal and the Chief Innovative Officer of his CPA firm, Blumer & Associates. He is the co-host of the Thrivecast and The Businessology Show and speaks and writes frequently for CPAs and creatives, his firm’s chosen niche. Jason loves to watch documentaries on just about anything. He lives in Greenville, SC with his wife and their three children. Stay connected with Jason by signing up at

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